Can the Tories “steal” one of Labour’s main words?
At one level the current verbal spats between Labour’s lone capable communicator, Peter Mandelson, and George Osborne look like standard silly season stuff when there’s not much other political news about. The Independent is presenting it this morning as a “grudge march” between the two key strategists in the main parties following last autumn’s fiasco about what happened in Corfu.
But it is I believe much more than that. What we are seeing are the first skirmishes in the coming general election battle with Osborne managing to rile not just Mandy but large parts of the left by saying that the Conservatives are the “progressives”.
The electoral background is straightforward. Osborne knows that much of the Conservative lead comes from voters who say they are switching from Labour or the Liberal Democrats and his party needs a language at the election that will keep them on board and maybe attract even more.
The inspiration for all of this is Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson. For in the run-up to 1997 landslide they made NuLab acceptable to millions of voters who normally would never consider voting for the party. They stuck with Blair in 2001 and although quite a lot moved to the Lib Dems over Iraq in 2005 the party still kept enough support to win a third term.
So it’s no wonder that Mandelson has fired off against Osborne with such ferocity. He of all people can see the danger.
But attacking the notion of “Progressive Conservatives” can have its own problems. For the Mandleson salvoes that we’ve seen this week might just be providing reassurance to mainstream Tories who have bought into Cameron as a potential election winner but are none too happy about his political positioning.
For there’s little doubt that many Tories are not comfortable with the way their party is developing. What’s the point of winning an election, they will say, unless we can go back to “traditional Tory values” – i.e what Maggie Thatcher believed in.
And the betting implications? Is Mandy making himself the only person within his party capable of taking the fight to the Tories? If so what does that do to the coming leadership battle? I’ve had quite a few bets at long odds on him – they might just prove to be winners.
PaddyPower has Mandelson at 20/1 as the “next prime minister after Gordon Brown”. You can envisage circumstances in which Brown steps down before the election and the Labour NEC needs to appoint a temporary leader. Mandy might just fit the bill.